Prof Rhiannon Corcoran

M-RIC stories – Why it matters to show people that they matter

By Professor Rhiannon Corcoran, M-RIC Co-Lead for System-Wide Mental Health Discovery and Implementation

It didn’t feel like a choice to go into mental health research because my own family background is strewn with mental health difficulties. My mother took her own life when I was doing my PhD, so that obviously had a big impact and many other members of my family have suffered mental health challenges.

There literally isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about my mum. That lived experience has really influenced how I research and what I research.

I’ve been very lucky in my career to work with high profile, impactful academics. I undertook my psychology degree, PhD and initial post-doctoral research at University College London. With Professor Chris Frith, I was looking at ‘theory of mind’ – how we understand other people’s meaning and intentions, in the context of severe mental illness. I developed several ways of measuring and looking at it; publishing some highly cited work on the measures I developed which are still used today, 30 years later!

I first came to Liverpool to bring a grant I had won in London. We were re-locating as a family and I started to collaborate around psychosis, with academics such as Professors Richard Bentall, Peter Kinderman and John Read, all influential psychologists who have changed how we conceptualise mental distress.

After about a year I moved to Manchester for a lectureship where I stayed for seven years, at the same time as bringing up three children. It meant commuting to Manchester every day which was heavy going with a young family and now I sometimes wonder how I did it!

After that I took a post at University of Nottingham for six years; and then in 2012 I returned to Liverpool to take up my current post as Professor of Psychology and Public Mental Health – and I have never looked back.

Why Liverpool feels like home

Here, there is a sense that your career choice is much more your own; I felt less channelled and freer to do the kind of stuff that I really wanted to do, which is to move my research direction much more into public mental health, understanding not only the psychological mechanisms but also what public health folk call the ‘wider determinants’ of mental health.

Living in urban areas has long been known to affect mental health, including serious disorders like schizophrenia which are more common in relatively disadvantaged built up areas. I am really interested in this so called ‘urbanicity effect’ where understanding the impact of the places we live on mental health and wellbeing has become a passion. I do a lot of work with people from built environment disciplines and sectors, for example landscape architects, geographers, planners and urban designers.

I have worked a lot with Scholars in English too. I’m very interested generally in the part the arts can play in mental health, but more specifically how literature can help, learning in a comfortable space from the experiences of literary characters.

I’ve worked closely with The Reader on the benefits and impact of reading on mental health; we published about six papers, using different methods to understand the value of literature, including a functional neuroimaging study.

Lots of my practices go beyond a bounded focus on psychology – coming to Liverpool has really enabled me to do that.

Fast paced, real-world research with Liverpool City Council

During Covid I was working on the psychological and social impact of lockdown; we ran a repeated survey of Liverpool city region residents on people’s mental health and wellbeing ups and downs during these challenging times.

With Professor Iain Buchan I was also involved in running some qualitative research on the running of the vaccine programme; and the opening up of public events. This research was carried out at speed so that the results could feed into decision making and changes to practice.

Professor Buchan also brought me in to lead the community and wellbeing evaluation of Eurovision which again was a fast-paced piece of work, incredibly interesting and an absolute joy to do, but it went – whoosh, it was so quick! We came together under Liverpool’s Director of Public Health, Professor Matt Ashton in February 2023 and our report was completed and launched nine months later.

Measuring the impact of public and patient involvement in research

Feeling that you matter to the people you believe you ought to matter to, is a fundamental human need and so if you feel you don’t matter, it is devastating for mental health; you will feel like nothing. This is important, not only from the point of view of the individual but also from the point of view of society.

If adults, children and young people with mental health challenges or low wellbeing matter to society, then society needs to understand why those children and young people are currently so challenged.

In public health the term ‘empowerment’ is used which refers to a sense of being a powerful person in your community, having a voice and being able to say things and to contribute, which is similar; but I think ‘mattering’ gets more to the heart of it, to what it truly feels like to individuals.

I was prompted to propose mattering as an idea for research after going to a talk by Mersey Care Chief Executive, Professor Joe Rafferty. I was really struck by what he said about wanting to see in mental health the kind of optimism we now see in cancer because of cancer research. He emphasised how he’d not seen that in mental health and how he wants that to happen as a result of M-RIC.

There are two things we don’t know well about public involvement and engagement in research; how to do it meaningfully; and what it brings for the people involved.

I will be developing ways to measure the impacts on service users of being meaningfully involved in research and how it affects their sense of mattering, optimism and hope.

Plan for institute of adverse childhood experiences

I am working with colleagues in Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Liverpool, to set up a Liverpool Institute for Adverse Childhood Experiences. We have seen lots of powerful work in Liverpool on childhood adversity and its effect on later physical and mental health and the prospects of young people who have suffered adversity.

We know that people who later develop voices and psychosis, often have in their backgrounds, episodes of sexual abuse; it is very common, particularly among women who hear voices. Similarly, people who suffer from persecutory delusions often report adverse childhood experiences related to bullying and sometimes neglect.

We have real strengths in this area but what we don’t have is concerted leadership and so the Liverpool ACEs institute will bring together researchers, academics, and people involved in various sectors, to move the research away from simply documenting how ACEs are related to mental health, towards how we prevent ACEs from happening in the first place; but also how we prevent the impact of ACEs later on in life.

I feel very strongly that it is our duty as researchers to find out why mental health services are failing many people and why there is a disconnect between what is provided and what people are telling us they need. So being involved in M-RIC was a no-brainer really. I have lots of ideas and M-RIC is exactly the kind of vehicle to turn good ideas into action for the benefit of those of us who use mental health services.


Professor Rhiannon Corcoran discusses how we are exploring wider social determinants of mental health

Other roles held by Professor Rhiannon Corcoran include: